Ancient human history, as recorded by archeological findings, points to the very earliest vegetarianism. Prior to the industrial revolution, very little, if any meat was consumed by cultures around the world. Some argue that even our digestive systems are those of plant eaters, not meat eaters, since we have several feet of colon, a long and complex, often sacculated tube, which excess food must be excreted from, whereas meat eaters have short colons and can excrete rotting flesh quickly before it has the chance to pollute the other organs of the body. No matter your preference for meat or vegetable, there is a history which points to the consumption of primarily plant-derived food, which begins in ancient India.
Religions aside, there are other reasons for vegetarianism. It has been a hotly contested fact, but many people attest that producing meat in quantities, which are high enough to feed western consumption rates is harmful to the environment.
The gastronomical influences of India are steeped in the philosophy of Ahimsa, or nonviolence. No fruit and vegetable eater should shun the consumption of meat without first understanding the true roots of vegetarianism as it was first documented in India, and later parts of ancient Greece and southern Italy. People may reduce meat from their diets for health reasons, but the primary impetus behind declining meat derived foods was a spiritual one, not just a physiological one, though of vegetarianism accounts for benefits in both areas.
The idea of ahimsa appeared in Jain, Hindu, Zoroasterianism, Brahinist, and Buddhist texts. In early Jain texts ahimsa was considered such a prominent part of their philosophy, that ascetics would resolutely sweep the ground before them to clear it of any miniscule creatures that might be harmed by their footsteps. Ahimsa means non-injury or non-violence to any living creature, including the smallest and often forgotten. It is an interesting concept to understand fully, however, because most people mistakenly believe that ahimsa means non-violence only toward others. Ahimsa, in its earliest form meant non-violence toward one’s self, since this could delay or inhibit the realization of Infinite Wisdom, called moksha. Jains believed that by hurting another living thing, one was harming their own souls, since all sentient beings have the right to live without fear and obtain their maximum divine potential, and ultimately, we are all one reality, not separate individuals as many of us perceive ourselves to be.
Buddhists learned the term ahimsa from Hindus. They describe it as ‘the avoidance of violence’, and to do no harm. In the first precept of Buddhist teachings it is outlined as such, “I undertake to live by the rule that I shall take no life.” Most Buddhists see this idea as a strong rule against war and human violence, such as murder, and others interpret it down to smaller levels of action, such as being vegetarianism. Even Jains would be careful to not harm even plant life in their every day activities whenever they could. The Buddhist understanding of ahimsa could be interpreted as the more macrocosmic undertaking of the philosophy of non-violence. Buddhists are not required to be vegetarian, but many are.
Hindus take their direction from the Sanskrit word itself, and the teachings of ancient texts like the Rig Veda, and from specific verses in the Upanishads. Hindus understand that ahimsa means a deep reverence for all forms of life, and see all living things as sacred, and therefore, desire to do no harm to that which is divine in its true nature. The main difference between Hindus and Jains, is that since the 6th century BC when people revolted against the ideas of Hinduism, Jains decided there was non ultimate creator of the Universe, whereas Hindus, believe in Brahman – the divine and supreme being which takes on many forms.
In ancient times people were vegetarian throughout India and all over Asia. Some people even believe Lord Buddha came to stop the unnecessary slaughter of animals. Yogis carried these beliefs into present time, even after eating meat came back into vogue despite numerous ancient teachings advising against this practice. Practitioners of Hatha yoga do not eat meat, nor do disciples of the Vaishnava schools associated with Bhakti Yoga. In fact, bhakti yogis offer their food to Vishnu or Krishna before eating it, and only vegetarian food is consumed.
These philosophical differences are important when one comes to understand ahimsa, and therefore the earliest reasons behind being a vegetarian. No matter your religious beliefs – Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise – the idea that life is sacred is a common denominator. When we look at the overarching concept of ‘life’ we have to understand its interdependence – on its environment, on us and on the other sentient beings of this planet. Even some sect of early Christianity honored animals instead of placing man over all his kingdom. Between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, Manicheanism, a philosophy begun near Babylonia and promoted by the prophet Mani, preached against animal slaughter. His teachings were thought to come from Mesopotamia and the Gnostic religious movements there. St. Francis of Assisi was a known vegetarian as well.
Reasons to be Vegetarian
Religions aside, there are other reasons for vegetarianism. It has been a hotly contested fact, but many people attest that producing meat in quantities, which are high enough to feed western consumption rates is harmful to the environment. The grain that is needed to feed cows and poultry can feed more people with the same amount of fossil fuel expenditure and labor. It is also estimated that it takes 3 to 20 times the amount of water to produce grain for meat food as it does to produce vegetable or grain food. It takes up to 16 pounds of soy and grain, for example to feed an animal for every one pound of meat it will produce for consumption, so instead, many vegetarians feel that by consuming the grain directly, they are being more efficient and not taxing the environment unnecessarily.
There has also been a great reduction in our world forests in order to make way for livestock production. Although some will argue that trees are replanted, it takes up to 100 years or more for many types of hardwood to grow to their full potential, and when we clear cut them by the dozen-acre, we also deplete the carbon dioxide sink that many of these forests provide. While the earth is heating up along with the rest of the planets in the solar system, it doesn’t make sense to expedite greenhouse effects
Furthermore, there is no element from a nutritional standpoint that cannot be had from a plant source. We can see this in nature, since large mammals have an abundance of energy eating only plants – elephants, cows, rhinoceros, giraffes, etc. are great examples because their caloric need is even greater than our own.
Food as Energy
In a rather explicit way we can understand food as a form of energy. In the yogic understanding, what we consume as food, is sort of the middle-man on the way to being able to get our energy directly from the sun, as plants themselves do. It is understood by yogis that food can impress bad or good qualities upon the consumer of it. It can affect your thoughts, actions and health. Some foods have high spiritual vibrations (i.e., they are full of light) and other foods, which have negative spiritual vibrations (i.e. meat due to the fact that the animal is full of adrenaline right before it is killed and many meat food sources are also now full of toxins and hormones which humans should not eat.) These two differing choices of food can affect our overall well-being tremendously.
Foods that are most easily converted to energy are the best for one’s spiritual and physical health. An animal’s flesh still has the energy of the plant that it, itself, has eaten, but they are greatly diminished. A plant (fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, etc.) that is fresh and eaten soon after it has been picked is still full of life force or prana, and abundant oxygen for our cells. Plants are the most easily converted into energy for the body and mind.
While Vedic society may have begun vegetarianism, it likely was the prominent diet as far back as homo sapien. The idea was carried forward through Vedic teachings, and through great figures like Pythagoras, who argued against Aristotle who believed that all animals were akin to slaves, and meant to be used to alleviate human toil or as food. Apollonius (CE232), of Greece, argued against meat consumption in his paper, ‘On Abstinence From Animal Food.’ Others throughout history, including yogis and philosophers have explained the benefits of plant consumption. These ideas on food consumption are rich and deeply articulated through time, and as such, deserve to be credited with our attention. For more information you can visit vegsociety.org.